Visiting nursing homes when I was young always made me so depressed. All those old people in one place. I remember those homes as dark and smelly, not necessarily a bad smell, but an old smell.
I sometimes accompanied my grandmother who would go on Sunday afternoons to Darlington House in Toledo to see some of her old friends and family. I always felt so bored and even a bit scared. Her visits seemed to last forever. Even when some of the residents would engage me in conversation, I always felt the conversations were strained and awkward— especially because a lot of them had very strong accents that I could barely decipher. They seemed cultures, languages, and years away from my life.
Now my mother is in a nursing home. I have never seen her more lucid and alert. She seems stronger, getting into and out of her wheel chair with more zest, and much less dependent. (This is all relative, however. She still needs a lot of support.) Her conversation is witty and bright. She complained this morning that she had breakfast with a couple of really old men. My brother asked her, “And you’re not old?”
“Not as old as they are. They were old when they were forty.”
Her spirits are up and she seems to be really working to show us how well she is adjusting. The place is bright and smells good. The staff is positive and cheerful. The food is home-cooked and will eventually all come from the large organic garden they are replanting in the back. (There are raised beds for the residents to plant in as well.) The residents are friendly (except for those two very old men) and gracious with each other. There seems to be plenty to do –exercise classes, library, courtyards and gardens to explore, physical therapy, small concerts by music students in the area, occasional field trips for shopping, and, oh yes, television.
I’m sure it is my own growing ever closer to this eventuality myself that makes my response to this nursing home so different from the response of my young self. I’m sure it is the actual improvement I see in my mother’s well-being and spirit that has softened my old stereotypes.
But mostly it is my mother’s utter compassionate acceptance of her life and her eventual end of life that radiates with such great beauty and humanity. I guess over 50 years ago, on my visits to Darlington House with my grandmother, I was way too young and unaware to see any of that energy.
Nothing depressing here.